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Closing Arguments Begin In Trial For ALS Patient’s Murder

Prosecutors say caregiver Wanda Nelson and her co-defendant, the victim's mother, both had motives to kill

With the aid of a flow chart projected on a screen in court, Senior Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser delivered her closing argument Tuesday in the murder trail of Wanda Nelson, accused of murdering ALS patient Heidi Good in 2013.
With the aid of a flow chart projected on a screen in court, Senior Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser delivered her closing argument Tuesday in the murder trail of Wanda Nelson, accused of murdering ALS patient Heidi Good in 2013. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Closing arguments began Tuesday in the Santa Barbara County Superior Court trial of a caregiver and an elderly mother accused of conspiring to murder a Solvang ALS patient.

Tuesday’s presentation in a Santa Maria courtroom before Judge Rogelio Flores focused on the case against caregiver Wanda Nelson, 63.

A different jury is expected to hear closing arguments in the case against Marjorie Good, 89, as soon as Wednesday.

The women are accused of sedating Heidi Good and tampering with her ventilator, leading to her death March 25, 2013. 

Senior Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser urged the jurors to look at all of the evidence against Nelson.

“When you look at all the evidence in its entirety …  there is only one reasonable conclusion, and that is the defendant is guilty of first-degree murder as charged.,” Gresser said. 

Nelson, the longtime caregiver for Heidi, and Marjorie Good, Heidi's mother, became fixated on the ALS patient’s husband, Stephen Swiacki, almost immediately urging law enforcement officers to look into his role in Heidi's death. 

Yet, prosecutors contend the women had financial motives for killing Heidi — Marjorie allegedly feared she was being written out of her daughter's will and the caregiver owed taxes as an independent contractor.

Heidi required constant care as she relied on a ventilator to breathe, but she died when her breathing machine stopped working due to the actions of her paid caregiver and mother, the prosecutor said.

"She was dependent on that ventilator and she died within minutes, within minutes suffocating because she was deprived of oxygen," Gresser said, adding that Heidi was "cognitively aware" while trapped in her body.

Wanda Nelson listens as closing arguments are delivered Tuesday in her trial on charges she conspired to murder ALS patient Heidi Good of Solvang. Click to view larger
Wanda Nelson listens as closing arguments are delivered Tuesday in her trial on charges she conspired to murder ALS patient Heidi Good of Solvang. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

"They left her and they actively killed her while she sat there and realized what was happening," Gresser said. 

Nelson was running an errand when Heidi’s ventilator alarm sounded for 30 minutes. Marjorie was outside gardening, but also claimed she had just left her daughter's room. 

"Ms. Nelson was gone at the exact time that Heidi was killed. How convenient," Gresser said.

The prosecutor also questioned why Nelson had never told investigators she not only picked up a prescription for Heidi but also purchased a birthday card during a trip to Rite-Aid the day her patient died.

“She came up with that on the stand,” Gresser said.

The prosecution contends Good feared she was being written out of Heidi's will, and that Nelson was upset over taxes she owed due to her status as in independent contractor.

The prosecutor also noted what she called inconsistent stories given by the defendants in many hours of interviews with law-enforcement officers after Heidi’s death.

As Gresser spoke, Nelson repeatedly shook her head in disagreement.

If jurors don’t feel Nelson committed willful, premeditated murder, the prosecutor said they could find Nelson guilty of lesser charges of second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter.

But defense attorney Lori Pedego, who represents Nelson, said the prosecution did not prove the women conspired to murder Heidi.

“The details that cannot be remembered during this situation are not evidence of a conspiracy that anybody killed Heidi,” Pedego said. “They’re not evidence of aiding and abetting a murder of Heidi Good. They’re evidence of two distraught women trying to piece together what happened with limited pieces of information.”

Pedego noted that representatives of the ventilator manufacturer testified that the exhalation valve drive line had only popped off once before due to misuse involving another patient.

Yet, as an investigator demonstrated the equipment to the jurors in the trial, the line popped off and the alarm sounded.

“In my 16 years of practice, that’s the closest thing to a Perry Mason moment that I’ve ever seen,” Pedego said.

While Nelson and Good are good friends and shared a dislike of Stephen Swiacki, those facts don’t add up to conspiracy, Pedego said.

Defense attorneys allege a flawed investigation led to the charges against the women, including failing to obtain surveillance video from a drug store to show Nelson’s location at the time the ventilator stopped working.

During the trial, jurors traveled to the house where Heidi died to determine what could, or couldn’t, be heard outside the home as the ventilator alarm sounded. 

“I’m so happy you got to do the re-enactment, you all got to go to the house, because that was such an eye-opener. That was so compelling about what you could hear where you were,” Pedego said.

The closing arguments by Pedego and rebuttal by the prosecutor will continue at 9 a.m. Wednesday. 

Afterward, Gresser will start delivering closing arguments for the case against Good, followed by her defense attorney, David Bixby.

Selection of the two juries and alternates began in November with testimony starting in early December. Originally, officials estimated the trial would wrap up in the last part of January.

For most of the trial, which began November with jury selection, both panels have been in the courtroom hearing the same testimony. In some select situations, the judge dismissed one panel.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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